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The story of the Princes in the Tower

One of the English Monarchy’s great unsolved mysteries: just what happened to the Princes in the Tower?

The mystery surrounding the fate of young brothers, Edward V of England and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York is still one that stands today. Many believe that the boys were murdered and continue to haunt rooms in the Bloody Tower.

The Bloody Tower is also home to the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh and along with his famous sightings, Coldstream Guards claimed to have heard two young kids in 1990 laughing outside the tower, accompanied by a bouncing sound. Many others have seen the two young princes holding hands, hiding in fear in many different locations throughout the tower.

It is most commonly accepted that the princes were murdered by their uncle, the Lord Protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester in an attempt to claim the throne for himself. The boys who were 12 and nine at the time had just lost their father, Edward IV of England, and Edward V ascended in his place. Richard was appointed to look after the children, where he kept them in the Tower of London in preparation for Edward’s coronation. Richard took the throne for himself, and no one ever saw the young princes again.

Most historians have agreed that the motivations for Richard killing the boys are more likely than any other theory. Richard III’s claim to the throne was not secure and attempts to rescue the princes from the Tower in which they were still believed to be living were made to restore Edward V to King of England. By late 1483, rumours of the boys death began to spread. Richard never made an attempt to change anyone’s mind or open an investigation.

The Princes in the Tower, by Samuel Cousins (died 1887), after Sir John Everett Millais (original 1878). Mezzotint. National Portrait Gallery

The Princes in the Tower.

It is unlikely that Richard murdered the princes himself as he was in the Yorkist heartlands when they disappeared. One of Richards men, who were guarding the tower were more likely to commit the crime. James Tyrrell, who fought for the House of York, was arrested by Henry VII’s troops in 1502, and it is believed that he admitted to killing the boys on behalf of Richard before his execution.

Aside from Richard there are two other likely suspects, Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham or Henry VII.

Henry Stafford was Richard’s right-hand man, but committing the murder of the two boys would mean he would have had to do this before November 1483 when he was executed. He was himself a descendant of Edward III and may have been hoping to claim the crown for himself, or he murdered them in a rage against Richard when he rebelled against him causing the case for his execution.

Once Henry VII became King, he set out to rid of any rival claimants to the throne, including the illegitimate son of Richard II, John of Gloucester. If the princes were still alive in 1485 when Henry took the crown, he likely would have had the boys murdered as well.

Many other theories include those of the boys escaping and leading different lives. Until history reveals itself we will just have to wonder.

In 1674, a work crew dug up a wooden box with two young skeletons close to the reported burial site by the White Tower. At the time, it was accepted that those were the princes, although it has never been proven. The bodies found were buried at Westminster Abbey by King Charles II four years later. In 1933, the bones of the bodies found were examined with the results coming back that they were the right age of the missing princes. However, no attempt was made to identify the sex of the bodies or cause of death.

So next time you are visiting the Tower of London and happen to come across two boys cowering in a corner of the Bloody Tower, do not fear, they are probably just as scared of you, as you are of them as they look for a place of peace to last for eternity.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia (2)

  • J Larner

    What a load of codswallop!
    ‘It is most commonly accepted that the princes were murdered by their
    uncle, the Lord Protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester in an attempt to
    claim the throne for himself.’ – Richard was already king, legally anointed and crowned well before the ‘princes’ disappeared. And it is not most commonly accepted any more – Richard is now commonly seen as a scapegoat, his name blackened by the usurping Tudors.
    ‘Richard III’s claim to the throne was not secure’ – it was as secure as any other king of the times.
    ‘Richard never made an attempt to change anyone’s mind or open an investigation.’ – the rumours were not that widespread, plus there were also rumours they were alive – if, as many believe, Richard had them moved somewhere to safety (Burgundy?), why would he start an investigation?
    ‘James Tyrrell, who fought for the House of York, was arrested by Henry
    VII’s troops in 1502, and it is believed that he admitted to killing the
    boys on behalf of Richard before his execution.’ – there is not a shred of evidence for this – he was executed on a completely different charge and his so-called accomplices were left free to live their lives. It was said Henry wanted to ‘give out’ that Tyrell had confessed, but was advised not to.
    ‘including the illegitimate son of Richard II, John of Gloucester’ – typo – you mean Richard III of course, but it is not actually known what happened to John – this might have happened though.

  • Jean A. Dickey

    Two Word — Perkin Warbeck

    Why did Henry VII have him badly beaten prior
    to his having been drawn and quartered on
    Tower Hill? How contrived was his confession?
    What did Tyrrell actually say in his own words
    verses what may have been prompted by the rack?
    Poor Perkin Warbeck had been badly beaten about
    the face before he was to be put on display for the
    public right before his execution.

    There is an old sketch that has him looking rather
    like Edward IV. I admit giving him more credence
    does not explain what happened to Edward V but
    we’ve at least gone half the distance towards a
    resolution of this question! Thoughts are the urn
    from the Restoration 1600s has its answers, too!

    • Ivana Cvetanovic

      There’s no evidence that Tyrrell ever said anything about the alleged murder of Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, other than a rumor recorded decades later by Thomas More (who admitted it was just one of the rumors circulating around). If he had actually confessed, it’s hard to understand what reason Henry VII would have had not to make it public!

  • Dave Smith

    This is worse than codswallop as the scenario of the Princes held prisoner in the Tower is completely false.This article ignores the latest discoveries of evidences found in the paintings of the period by artists such as Holbein the Younger and the ‘artist’ who signed his portraits as ‘Symnel’.These hidden ‘messages’ have vindicated Jack Leslau and are proof that nobody murdered the Princes as the were alive when Henry Tydder usurped the throne and they lived well into the next century. It is high time historians stopped endlessly repeating these sensationalist articles which have no proofs or even evidences to substantiate them. They should do new research instead of relying on the lies and propaganda promulgated by the Tudor dynasty.

  • Ivana Cvetanovic

    Several things to mention here…

    1) No, Richard was NOT appointed to be protector of his nephews. He was to be Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm – the head of state during Edward’s minority. His title meant he was to be protector of ENGLAND, not a glorified babysitter. Same as the earlier Lord Protectors – Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester was LP of England and John, Duke of Bedford of France, while their nephew Henry VI was a minor; Richard’s father Richard, Duke of York was LP during adult Henry VI’s bouts of insanity – his duty was to perform the duties of a ruler, not to take care of Henry. If things had gone smoothly, Edward V would continue to be cared after by his maternal uncle Anthony Rivers, and the younger boy, Richard, by his mother, as they had until that point.

    2) Right after Edward IV’s death, a conflict escalated between Richard, Duke of Gloucester and queen Elizabeth Woodville and her family. First off, she didn’t send a letter to notify him about his brother’s death, which was, if nothing else, quite rude. Richard was, at the time, up north in his castle of Middleham, he was de facto governor of the north of England, and rarely came to court. Instead, Lord Hastings (Edward’s close friend, who had a rivalry with the Woodvilles, who were quite unpopular) sent a letter to Richard, notifying him of his brother’s death and warning him that the Woodvilles were planning a coup d’etat, that they were going to crown the young king immediately and rule through him, marginalizing Richard. Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, also wrote to Richard in a similar vein and offered his help against the Woodvilles. (Buckingham was married to Elizabeth Woodville’s sister when they were both still children, but he didn’t like or get along with his in-laws.) Richard and the 500 men he took with him started marching south, and met with Buckingham, and they intercepted Anthony Rivers, who had already started to march to London with Edward V and 2000 men. Rivers said Edward V was at Stony Stratford with his half brother Richard Grey (Elizabeth’s son from her first marriage) and others. Richard then had Anthony Rivers arrested, went to Stony Stratford and managed to take control of his young nephew, arresting Grey and a couple of others, and went to London, taking an oath of allegiance to Edward as king and making everyone else do the same. Elizabeth Woodville took her daughters, her son Richard, her other son from the first marriage Thomas Grey, and many possessions, and went into sanctuary. A lot of what happened next is controversial, including an alliance that unexpectedly formed between Elizabeth and Grey on one side and Hastings (their earlier rival/opponent) on the other, and Richard claimed that they were planning to kill him, and executed Hastings; this, however, all happened about the same time as the event I’m focusing on in the next paragraph…

    3) Richard didn’t just go and take the throne. The throne was offered to him by the Three Estates of the Realm, on the grounds of the testimony of Bishop Robert Stillington, who revealed that he had secretly married Edward IV and Eleanor Butler (nee Talbot), a young widow and daughter of the Earl of Shreswbury, two years before Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth (which was also conducted in secret, and only revealed months later). According to medieval church law, this made his second marriage bigamous (Eleanor was still alive when Edward married Elizabeth) and all children from that marriage illegitimate. This was confirmed by an Act of Parliament, “Titulus Regius”, in 1484. Historians are still arguing over whether Stillington was telling the truth, but it needs to be said that 1) he was retired and didn’t get anything from Richard III subsequently, 2) he used to hold important positions during Edward’s reign, but was briefly arrested for an undisclosed reason around the same time Edward had his brother George arrested (there is speculation that the real reason for George’s execution may have been that George learned about Edward’s previous marriage, which he could use to oust the queen and her family – who were his old enemies – and make himself Edward IV’s heir), and 3) Henry VII had “Titulus Regius” repealed in 1486, so he would make Elizabeth of York Edward IV’s legitimate heir and then marry her to strengthen his claim; but he ordered it repealed without being read, and all the copies destroyed. He never did anything to try to prove that it was not true. He arrested Stillington, but Stillington never publicly recanted his testimony. Also, 4) Tudor historians tried to suppress the information about Eleanor Talbot. Henry VII’s court historian Polydore Vergil outright lied about Richard’s claim to the throne (he claimed that it was based on the illegitimacy of Edward IV himself) and Thomas More claimed that Richard had claimed that Edward had been married to Elizabeth Lucy, a much lower born woman who was Edward’s known court mistress in the early 1460s (this was a way to make the story implausible).

    4) The Tower was a royal residence at the time, which occasionally also served as prison. Edward V being there to await his coronation was not unusual. His younger brother Richard was in the sanctuary until around the time of Hastings’ execution, when a delegation led by Archibishop Rotherham came to ask Elizabeth Woodville to release her other son so he could be with his brother in the Tower. After Richard was crowned king, the boys were still living in the Tower, and were seen playing and practicing in the Tower garden in July 1483.

    5) No, there is no consensus among historians that Richard is likely to have murdered his nephews. Unless there is a poll, I don’t think anyone can say that “most historians” agree about anything regarding this issue. It’s never been even proven that they were murdered at all, as opposed to being transferred to some other, less conspicuous place, perhaps abroad. Many people at the time believed that at least the younger boy, Richard, outlived his uncle, and in 1490s, many believed that “Richard of England”, aka “Perkin Warbeck”, the pretender who claimed to be the younger of the two ‘Princes in the Tower’, was who he said he was. Even now, this can’t be proven either way. Among those who believe the boys were murdered, there is a lot of disagreement over who did murder them. Many have argued that Richard murdering them in secret and hiding their bodies makes no sense, as it’s really not clear how that would have helped secure his throne at all (which didn’t even seem to be in danger in the summer of 1483) and that there were other people, like supporters of Henry VII, and Buckingham (who was in contact with supporters of Henry VII such as John Morton and his cousin Margaret Beaufort, and was planning a rebellion and allying with supporters Henry VII in summer 1483, but also had a claim to the throne himself) had better motives – rumors of boys’ demise served them well to both get rid of the boys (Henry Tudor promised to marry their sister Elizabeth of York, but he could not become king if the boys were in the picture) and try to turn the Yorkists against Richard, as an “evil uncle” who supposedly murdered his nephews. It’s still a hot topic for discussion, with many books and articles on the matter and many theories what may have really happened.

    6) Regarding the remains that were found in the Tower in the 17th century, the 1933 examination claimed to have established their ages, but those findings have been questioned a lot since. It’s been argued that the examination started off with the premise they were the Princes, and that their exact ages were not actually determined; nor was, for that matter, the time period when they lived and died. (Since they were found as deep as 10 feet – 3 meters – in the ground, under a heavy staircase that was there in Richard III’s time, it seems more likely they died in an earlier time period.) It’s even been questioned if those were remains of two people and more, and if some animal bones weren’t mixed with them as all. A new exhumation with modern techniques would be needed to establish anything for sure.

    7) There’s no actual evidence that links James Tyrrell with the supposed murder of ‘Princes in the Tower’. There is just a rumor recorded by Thomas More, which he admitted was just one of the rumors circulating around, a couple of decades after Tyrell’s death. Tyrell was actually arrested, tried and executed for helping Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk (another nephew of Edward IV and Richard III, son of their elder sister Elizabeth), the leading Yorkist claimant after the deaths of his elder brother John de la Pole at the battle of Stoke in 1487, and his cousin Edward, Earl of Warwick and his alleged cousin Richard/Perkin, both executed by Henry VII in 1499), escape England in 1501. There is no official mention of any confession he may have made about the ‘Princes in the Tower’; if he did confess such a thing, it is completely inexplicable why Henry VII didn’t record and make that confession public. He had every reason to do so: to rid himself of any further pretenders to the throne claiming to be one of the boys, to settle the issue and blame Richard III; and he had no reason not to do it. If someone confesses to having murdered a (former) king of England, that’s worth a mention! Yet, the only mentions about his supposed confession are rumors written decades later, when it was very convenient to blame a long dead man who could not defend himself. Moreover, another man who is alleged by More to have committed the murder together with Tyrrell (Miles Forest) lived freely in England. So why wasn’t he arrested?

    8) The Bloody Tower was known as the Garden Tower in the time of Richard III and for the next 100 or so years. It got its present name because Protestant/Catholic prisoners were kept there before execution, in the time of Mary I/Elizabeth I.

  • LauraS

    Edward IV’s marriage to Eleanor Talbot Butler was confirmed by Parliament after hearing the evidence of Bishop Stillington and possibly others. Henry VII later ordered all records destroyed, including Titulus Regius 1484. Dr. John Ashdown-Hill in his book “Eleanor the Secret Queen: The Woman who put Richard III on the Throne” (The History Press, 2009 ISBN, 9780752448664) goes through canon and English common-law of the
    time to show that “pre-contract of marriage” was the term for “a previous contract of marriage” i.e. a MARRIAGE not a betrothal, used in bigamy cases. And for a marriage to be legally valid in England in the 15th c, all that was needed was for the parties to verbally agree to be married followed by sexual intercourse; no witnesses or priest needed. Registration of marriages didn’t begin for another 100 years. Edward IV was MARRIED to Eleanor Talbot Butler, and Parliament confirmed that marriage in Titulus Regis. He could not have legally married Elizabeth Woodville Grey or anyone else while Eleanor was alive; nor could he have gone through another ceremony with EW after Eleanor’s death, as they had been “living in sin.”

    I am also of the opinion that Richard had nothing to do with the boys’ disappearance. Had he been involved, an announcement would have been made that the boys had perished from some sudden illness or tragic accident, poor things, and then they would have been given a
    lovely, public funeral. No chance of pretenders, no former monarch to rally around. This is what happened with Edward II, Richard II, and
    Henry VI, and people would almost have expected some such thing eventually (after the boys reached adulthood) even if they didn’t believe the stated cause of death. Having them disappear without a trace certainly didn’t benefit Richard, quite the contrary. I also think that it would have been a stupid thing for Richard to kill them – just look at what happened to his reputation after Bosworth. And no one, not even Henry Tudor, ever called Richard stupid. Politically naive, yes, or at the other extreme evilly calculating, but not stupid. Something else happened to those boys – Buckingham or someone else got to them, Richard got them out of the country until he was well established, something. We will most likely never know.

    According to the reports of how and where those bones were found in the Tower, the chances that they are those of Edward IV’s sons are very slim. The bones were found ten feet under the foundations of a great stone staircase that dated from two centuries before the boys’ births. It took an entire team of men several days to dismantle that staircase and dig out those foundations in 1674. How could anyone have dug under it in 1483 (in one night according to Thomas More!) and buried the bodies of two children without someone noticing? (And don’t forget, More then said they were “secretly” moved later, by Richard!) Several hundred people were in and out of the Tower every day, and more than 100 lived there full-time. Someone would have said something, especially after Bosworth: “Oi, there was a bloody great ‘ole dug right there guv – they tore apart that stair over there – took ’em days – and then put it back. Strange thing that, eh?” That didn’t happen. Those bones are far more likely to be from the Roman cemetery currently being excavated near the Tower. It would normally only take carbon-dating to prove that. but there’s been so much contamination that an accurate date may not be possible.

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